Logo Utrecht University

Philosophy of the Arts


Art should never have been turned into an autonomous cultural practice.

We are so much Hegelians with regard to art. I can bring this out by arguing that our interest in art is little more than a category mistake. Sure, people sometimes make interesting, or beautiful pictures. So what? Why put them in a museum? We could rightly ask this rhetorical question with regard to old times’ portraiture: these portraits were meant for the portrayed (and their kin and colleagues). Why put them where all sorts of people, including totally irrelevant ones can observe them? As soon as we found that these pictures could also be presented to an anonymous audience, that became a truism and a value. This fact brought Gadamer to the thought that works of art are, in principle, to be perceived by everyone: their experiences are all ‘contemporaneous’. So now the mere fact of being observable meritoriously by the many becomes a value in itself.

Art turning itself loose from representation

Next development: those works of art which zoom in on the very interactive processes they embark in with this anonymous audience. Found art enters the arena, as does the performance, installation art, what not? These new art forms are then said to be ‘in crisis’, as they have lost their logical connection with their meaning, or content.
In Kant, we don’t yet find these high hopes for art. He addressed the issue of our aesthetic experiences and aesthetic values in se, i.e. as something that explains certain experiences, not as something that legitimates a whole cultural practice. The idea that art is an autonomous cultural practice can be defended with arguments developed by Kant, but is not itself an argument defended by Kant.
It was, though, defended by Hegel: art is an important cultural practice wherein people express their self-conscious insights in a sui generis way: the ideal is presented here in sensuous form, and we cannot take away any of its sensuous elements without in the same move changing the thought. Art, then is no longer representation. That, one might say, is Hegel’s thesis of the end of art. So the avenue of looking at art as a vehicle of representation, is cut off now. And we have little alternative but to zoom in on whatever sui generis stuff works of art present us with.

Art as a category mistake

All of this is a category mistake, a run-away extrapolation of the crucial phenomenology of representations. Kant made it available though: he pointed out, in the very first sentence of his analytic of the judgement of taste that when we experience the beauty of something we refer its presentation to our own feelings. I have argued elsewhere how the way to read this is: in judging something’s beauty we hold it before us as though it were a representation, we approach it with an attitude known from the phenomenology of representations. Beauty has an added-on nature, it is not the essence of anything, nor of art.
It is both viable and fruitful to aesthetically analyse the ways in which we portray people and the world at large, rather than, and often in opposition to, what it is that is thus represented—like we still do in art history, semiotics or cultural studies. Kant, again, made room for such analyses in his infamous section 17 on the ideal of beauty, where he understands beauty as the expression of a moral inner. Yet, Kant’s views on art say little beyond that.

In present (Western) culture, representations of all kinds and types are predominant. We are troubled about what is represented in the many ways we are confronted with. And we seem little disposed to single out a selection of representations to exhibit in museums. And when we do single out non-art representations to museum exhibitions, we do so apologizingly.
Art should never have been turned into an autonomous cultural practice.

Who made which mistake, then?

The mistake, apparently, was in identifying artistic merit with aesthetic value (i.e. beauty).
Kant was troubled by that identification, hence his vehement protests against Baumgarten’s identification of beauty with sensuous success (the perfection of sense knowledge, Aesthetica, §13). Kant, also, distinguished real aesthetic success (or: pure beauty) from dependent aesthetic success (beauty dependent somehow on concepts); he most certainly relegated artistic merit to the latter, dependent, aesthetic category!
As said, it was Hegel who turned artistic merit into aesthetic value (i.e. beauty), or reversely, aesthetic value into artistic merit: the idea of beauty is the successful sensuous presentation of Geist. So, he didn’t think of art as representational, but took it to be presentational, but, ever since: who cared?

>> Art

You must be logged in to post a comment.